I disappeared into the world of Montana this summer with daily swims in Flathead Lake, hiking in Glacier Park, eating copious amounts of fruit from the orchard and playing endlessly with my 8, soon to be 10 grandchildren. Summer is now bleeding into fall and on the eve of my 67th birthday I am at the familiar personal evaluation precipice that I find myself every August 31st. What did I learn this year? What did I accomplish? Did I love more fully? Live more courageously?
I was digging through the writing archives on my computer and came across a letter that my daughter Brooke who is now 38 years old, wrote and read at my hospice retirement dinner party, which was attended by my immediate family four years ago. Brooke has a doctorate in counseling psychology and is experienced in the areas of crisis response and suicide in Santa Barbara, California. With her permission I am sharing this letter. If you were ever in doubt about how your unique professions might impact your children, this is a testament that with a touch of grace and humor they will be able to endure and maybe even learn something from the work you do.
My first memory is of a woman. She has white hair and I don’t know her name. There is a large window in her kitchen, a round table placed in front of it and I sat at this table with her for hours it seems. She taught me how to push flowers through wire and wrap it all around a hair comb. It was this hair comb that I am giving to you today that I created with her. She was a widow and one of your cases. Although my childhood mind encoded no grief in this memory, I recall feeling pure fascination with this wonderful woman who took time to teach me her hobby.
Then it was a retirement home, a cafeteria, tables of ancient people eating and you introducing me to the woman who could remember every word to every song that she performed on stage, but nothing about her family or even her own name.
Then the oncology unit, where you learned humor was the best medicine. You made fun of a doctor by hanging a finger condom on the bulletin board with a note saying he needed it for his date tonight.
You came to my classroom and made the students put stockings on their heads, over their faces and gloves on their hands and said, “This is what it feels like to be elderly. Try to open this bottle or to put on your shoes."
In the later years, your stories were peppered with details about what happens to the body as it dies - the bed sores, the impacted bowels, the smells of mouths, the sound of labored breathing as a person is in his or her final hours. You spoke often of the cases that haunted you, challenged you and touched you.
Your life’s work has seemed to me to be the undoing of your own, too early experience with death, dying, and loss. For the past 30 years of being the hand that is held at the bedside, the voice that is consoling, the eyes that are witnessing, the heart that is open; you gave to everyone you worked with, that which you did not receive.
When most of our society is unwilling, unable, disinterested, running from or terrified of the only thing we can count on – we will die. You have been there. Solid, present, compassionate.
“By their fruits, you shall know them.”
When asked about my work and what has lead me to wanting to be a psychologist, I say, it began with the woman who gave me life, who introduced me to a woman with white hair, who taught me to weave wires through plastic flowers as she grieved the death of her husband.
I am back from a summer of fun and family and music to autumn in San Francisco. My massage room is warmed up and I am ready to receive people for reiki sessions or grief counseling, or both should you choose. My wish for you all is that your transition into this fall this year is a smooth and peaceful one.